Deadly times for the panther as Florida ties roadkill record

This panther, blinded by a shotgun, is cared for at Lowry Park Zoo. Eye doctor Tammy Miller examines the wounds following its Oct. 11 rescue in Collier County.
This panther, blinded by a shotgun, is cared for at Lowry Park Zoo. Eye doctor Tammy Miller examines the wounds following its Oct. 11 rescue in Collier County. Lowry Park Zoo / Via Tampa Bay Times

On a Southwest Florida road last week, biologists found a female Florida panther that had been run over by a car or truck. The death of that 3- or 4-year-old panther marks the 19th roadkill death of one of Florida's official state animals this year.

That ties the all-time record set in 2012 — with more than a month left to go in the year. Experts expect to see the record broken before New Year's Eve rolls around.

Biologists estimate the population of panthers now to be from 100 to 180 adults and an unknown number of cubs. In addition to the loss of 19 to speeding cars and trucks this year, another four were killed by other causes.

Dave Onorato, a research scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said in an email that the record-tying deaths this year were caused by "a mixture of more panthers, more cars/people, and less habitat."

To try to cut back on the road deaths, "we need to do a better job of land-use planning and transportation planning," Elizabeth Fleming of Defenders of Wildlife said.

She said she hopes money raised by Amendment 1, a conservation initiative just approved by the voters, can be spent on putting more wildlife crossings on roads where the most panthers have been run over.

The 19th panther this year died last Thursday in Collier County.

Panthers face more risks than just crossing a busy highway. Several in recent years have been found shot dead, and so far wildlife officials have not charged anyone with those shootings.

On Oct. 11, a motorist spotted an emaciated panther crossing Immokalee Road in Collier County and stopped, only to discover it was wounded.

The panther had been blinded by one shotgun blast, with pellets still lodged in its head. More shotgun pellets, from a second blast, were in the 2-year-old cat's right leg. Now named "Uno," the panther is being cared for at Lowry Park Zoo, but it is unlikely to return to the wild.

Florida's schoolchildren picked the panther as the state animal in 1981, choosing it over the alligator, the manatee, the Key deer, and a few others that got write-in votes, such as the dolphin and the baboon.

Panthers are so popular they've become the mascot for dozens of schools including Florida International University, the namesake of South Florida’s pro hockey team, and the decoration on tens of thousands of specialty license plates, sold to pay for panther research.

But real panthers have struggled to hang on to their slice of Florida wilderness adjacent to where the state's most rapid development has occurred. Panthers lost habitat not just to suburban sprawl but to the creation of Florida Gulf Coast University and the town of Ave Maria.

In the mid 1990s there were no more than 30 panthers left. Those remaining suffered from genetic defects due to inbreeding, which prevented any captive breeding program.

In a bold experiment, state biologists imported eight female Texas cougars —- a close cousin of Florida's panthers — and turned them loose. They mated with panthers and produced offspring free of genetic defects, which in turn pushed the population above 100 cats for the first time in decades.

Because humans have moved into their territory, panthers have now begun turning up in back yards more frequently. Panthers have peeked into a woman's living room window, startled an unwary teenager and repeatedly attacked cats, goats and other domestic animals found around the edges of suburbia, not to mention killing cattle on Southwest Florida ranches.